Monday, August 30th, 2010

E.L. Doctorow On The State Of The Arts & Artists

E.L. Doctorow has a brilliant essay in this week’s issue of The Nation on where American artists and arts are now at this point in history. An excerpt:

Artists in America don’t usually band together. They are independent entrepreneurs of their imaginations. They create universes of which they are the sole occupants. They may influence one another, they may be bundled by critics as members of an aesthetic movement, but they work alone and think alone, and if they gather on social occasions, like the members of any trade, it is for warmth, for they all know how few of them there are and how unseen by most of the population.

But there are critical moments in our national life when artists do come together as a constituency…

(snip of a beautiful passage on artists in the 1930s)

So here now today, in a new century, is this assemblage of artists, poets, musicians and playwrights, and we must ask what is the crisis today that impels them, in all their brilliant individuality, to present themselves as a group show?

The fact is that some terrible deep damage to the nation was done in the aftermath of 9/11. The government that swung into action misdirected its response and, with devious arguments to the American people, took us to war. In short time it had adopted the policies of an authoritarian state. Americans found themselves the sponsors of torture, and of the endless imprisonment without trial or counsel of presumed terrorists; they learned well after the fact that they themselves were subject to secret illegal surveillance by their government, and they saw their Constitution disdained with the unilateral abrogation of international treaties such as the Geneva Convention, though such treaties are constitutionally “the supreme Law of the Land.” All these measures were claimed as wartime expedients and promoted with a propaganda of fear. At the same time, the scientific evidence of global warming was ignored, religious literalism was put in the way of medical advance, regulatory agencies were given over to the very industries they were to regulate and, rife with wartime corruption, this government left to wallow an American population severely alienated by gross economic inequalities, the forces of wealth thriving at the expense of the middle class and the shrill demagogues of right-wing radio and television shouting down all principled disagreement with what was happening. The resulting trauma to the American people’s sense of themselves and their country is still being felt. We have not wanted to believe that a sitting president and his advisers could have so given themselves to an agenda of social, economic and environmental deconstruction, and with such relentless violations of constitutional law as to render themselves, definably, as subversives.

(snip, you just gotta go read it)

…All of this together would seem to define a national identity crisis, a terribly weakened sense of ourselves as a proud citizenry in charge of our lives—a calamity of heart as bad as what America suffered in the Great Depression.

Under these circumstances, our art, literature and music, all of which comes up from the bottom, uncensored, unfiltered, unrequested—the artists of whatever medium always coming out of nowhere—does tell us that something is firm and enduring after all in a country given to free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate.

Read it in full here.

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